Living Without Fear

Honestly, I wish this was something that I was better at. I am pretty much afraid of everything. When Alayna and I first started dating I was afraid of commitment… I was also afraid that if I didn’t commit I’d lose her… and I was afraid that I’d commit only to find out that she wasn’t committing… and I was… I think you get the point. Right now I’m afraid that I’m being too domineering  of a husband, and I afraid that I don’t confront things in Alayna that I should confront, and I’m afraid that I confront the wrong things, and I’m afraid that I’m not consistent enough in my own example, etc, etc. I’m afraid that I don’t work hard enough, that I put too much pressure on her to have a solid income, and that I work too hard and that she overworks herself trying to keep up with me. With the prospect of our first child I’m afraid that I’ll get the wrong books, say or do the wrong things, not be involved enough, be too involved and micromanage his life, give an example of bad priorities, or try to be a perfect example and thus present him with hypocrisy. I’m afraid that my work isn’t good enough, or that its very good, but not what people want to hear, or that I just don’t choose the right topics, or the right journals to which to submit. In other words: I spend a lot of my time either being afraid, trying not to be afraid, or being afraid to be afraid.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famous for saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Overall, this is a fairly good saying (though perhaps dangerous if taken too literally). Fear often controls us, drives us to do things that we really shouldn’t do, and keeps us from pursuing things that we really should pursue. All too often, we give ourselves over to fear, calling it wisdom or prudence, and put our trust in ourselves, as though we could control the course of comets hurtling through space or the quasar/solar flare/blackhole/etc that will eventually obliterate our planet and every single thing on it. However, when we let fear control our actions we inevitably do stupid things, like those moms who put their 4th graders on leashes and walk them around the mall, that hurt ourselves and others.

We often think that the antidote to fear is courage, and to some degree this is probably true. Plato defined courage as ‘knowing what is worthy of fear and what is not worthy of fear, and acting accordingly.’ However, even this falls somewhat short because there are things that are legitimately worthy of fear (like the quasar/solar flare/blackhole of imminent planetary destruction that I mentioned above) over which we have absolutely no control, and which could very easily consume our lives and livelihoods (say, devoted to building detection equipment so that at least you’ll know that an the unstoppable galactic phenomenon is about to annihilate everything you’ve ever loved). However, this kind of fear simply destroys the joy or purpose of living. If our days are spent consumed with fear over things that we cannot change, then we never actually do the things that are really worth doing.

So, I argue that the antidote to fear is trust. A reliance on some outside force (which we will call God because I believe that the God of the Christian bible is this outside force) that does control such things. If there is a God, and he is perfectly good, and he cares about us, then we can trust him to do what is actually good. However, here, again, we tend to run into our own wall of fear: what if I don’t think that what God thinks is actually good is good? For instance, can I trust God to give my daughter cancer? What if I trust God and my daughter gets cancer? That’s obviously not good, right? NO! NEIN! NIET! IE! BU! ME GENOINTO! LO! I don’t get to decide what is or is not good. I simply don’t, and as long as you and I continue to hold on to the idea that we get to define what is or is not good, the longer we hold on to our fear. Instead, we need to accept that sometimes we don’t know what is good and what is bad. Sometimes, what we’ve decided is good is the worst thing that could possibly happen to us, and sometimes the thing that we are so thoroughly terrified of is exactly what we need. So, instead of trying to define good and bad for ourselves, and fearing things that are out of our control, we should submit to the one who can actually define good and bad, and who has ultimate control. Just a thought.

Short Story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 3

This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.

Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.

On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.

Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?

“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”

***

The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?

As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”

“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”

“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”

At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.

“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”

“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.

Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”

One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”

“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”

“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”

Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”

“But—”

“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.

***

Carrying Crosses
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.

 

They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.

Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!

“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.

“If you can, then come down from that cross!”

“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.

Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?

From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”

Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”

Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!

“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t

Thief on the Cross
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.

The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.

After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.

“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”

“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”

“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”

The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.

Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.

Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.

“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”

Heaven
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

amenWell, in a comment on Tuesday’s post Wayne made an excellent point, and while my series this week hasn’t been focused on his point, it is one that I believe is extremely important and that I want to address. In Christian theology, and I am utterly convinced in all truth, the Holy Spirit is active and works in the life of every believer, even before that individual becomes a believer. Every biblical theologian with a lick of sense (including Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Arminius, etc–my point here is major figures from each of the significant camps of Christian soteriology) accepts the doctrine that the holy spirit works in the life of the believer both after they are saved, to guide them in (as Paul puts it) working out their own salvation in fear and trembling, and before they are saved in initiating within them the ability to respond to God. In John 15 Jesus tells his followers that if they abide in him he will abide in them, and many theologians take this to refer to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the human soul. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book The Responsible Self, makes the excellent point that a Christian should imagine the world around him as under the control of a sovereign God, and thus respond to every action as though it were an action in God’s design. This is not an argument that the believer should respond to sinners as though their sins were God’s perfect will for their lives, but that the believer should respond to sinners as though God allowed them to remain in their sins, and allowed those sins to affect the life of the believer, and thus should respond to those sins primarily as though he were responding to God’s hand in his life, and only secondarily respond to them as though they were sinful actions performed by sinful men.

The Holy Spirit is what Christians believe guides us towards and in this response. That if I am abiding in Christ then I can respond to all things as God would have me respond to them (i.e. as though responding to God’s hand in my life), and thus live out his calling to be holy, or wholly set apart for his worship through the of bearing his image to the world. Now, there are many mysteries here, not the least of which is that which has occupied Calvinists and Arminians through several centuries of sometimes vicious debate–the question of how the salvation of any individual may be both God’s choice from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1 and 2, etc) through which the individual was crucified with Christ, buried with him, raised with him, and ascended with him into glory, and be the individuals own efficacious choice (1 Peter 3, 2 Timothy 2, Matthew 23, etc) to repent of his/her sin, confess Christ as Lord, and submit to Him before which he/she cannot be saved. There are actually two mysteries here–1) how salvation can be both man’s own efficacious choice and God’s preknown, predestined will before creation, and 2) how man may both have been crucified, buried, raised, and glorified with Christ either after the individual’s own death (for those who lived before Christ), while the individual yet lived (for those who were contemporaries of Christ), or before the individual was born (for those who were born after Christ’s death), and not be saved until the individual repents of his/her sin and confesses Christ as Lord. These are things that don’t seem to work together, and yet we are told that they are true. Some have tried to reconcile them in various ways (which often leads to heresy of some kind as you must deny one truth to justify the other); attempted to use them to dismiss Christianity as illogical, unreasonable, or ludicrous (which only works if you have already dismissed on other grounds the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent, personal deity that is not bound by time); and some have accepted them as mysteries that are fundamentally true, but beyond our current understanding and thus knowable only to God.

So, here is your question: given these ideas 1) the indwelling of the holy spirit, 2) the unity and mystery of the faith, 3) the individual’s response to God in every action, and 4) the aid of the holy spirit in doing so, what does it mean to write fiction as a Christian?

Normally I would ask you to write a story of 1000 words. However, I have a feeling that 1000 words may not be enough for this topic. So, I’m going to ask you to either write a creative, non-fiction essay on the topic or write a short story of up to 20,000 words on the topic. Please don’t post these in the comment, but feel free to make shorter comments or to post links to your longer responses.

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Tom’s Not Here

Well, Tom would normally be posting today, but he’s traveling right now, and unfortunately the person who was supposed to be covering his spot had to bow out as well. Have you ever had one of those days when you just wanted to beat the living shit out of someone? I have. Actually, I used to have a lot of them (like… every day… I used to be a very angry person). Or one of those days when you just wanted to hide under the covers until the whole world went away? I’ve had a lot of those as well (amazingly enough, very angry people are often very frightened people as well). Let me tell you how to deal with them. It’s simple… …not easy, but simple (I’ve often found that those two don’t go together as often as you’d think).

  1. Acknowledge how you feel. Give it a name. The more you try to deny your anger, fear, envy, hate, etc the more control you give it. As long as it is something that you hide, cover up, or try to ignore the less you actually do to control it and the more it does to control you. At this point it can help to think of the feeling as a blackmailer trying to hold you hostage. You can pay up, repeatedly, or you can just come clean and take away the blackmailer’s power.
  2. Accept that this is who you are. Again, the more you deny it, the less you can actually do that will help it. You are an angry person, a cowardly person, a jealous person, a hateful person, etc. It’s a part of your character, and until you acknowledge that as well, your just going to keep being that angry, cowardly, jealous, hateful person because you can’t admit to yourself that something is wrong.
  3. Recognize that who you are is not who you should be. There’s a difference between being authentic and being good. I can be a very authentic douchebag and still be a douchebag. My authenticity doesn’t change that at all, though some people might think it will for a short time. So, while authenticity is important, you also need to recognize the need for change. I am not who I should be, nor am I who I want to be, and until I’m willing to recognize both who I am, and who I should/want to be, and see the difference between the two, I’m still stuck.
  4. Face your emotions and think about how you should feel in those situations. If you’re dealing with fear, think about a time that you’ve felt confident in a difficult situation, and then imagine that confidence bleeding over into the situation that you are afraid of. Something that also helps here is taking steps to alleviate actual reasons to feel a certain way. If you’re afraid of being mugged, start taking self-defense clashes. This isn’t going to simply solve the problem, but it will help you deal with the legitimate fear, and to recognize the difference between legitimate fear and illegitimate fear.
  5. Meditate on the way that you should feel. Take the time to not only reflect and identify how you should feel, but to repeatedly build in yourself a mental habit of feeling that way in the situations that would normally trigger your anger, fear, envy, etc. This is not a one time step. This is something to do on a regular basis, perhaps even a daily basis, and to spend time on (i.e. give this 20 or 30 minutes a day, not 2 or 3).
  6. Expose yourself to small, controlled aspects of the events that would normally trigger the emotions that you want to deal with. For instance, have someone you trust start a personal debate with you, or put you in a situation that would normally cause you to panic. Go slowly, separate your mind from the situation, try to look at yourself in the third person, and identify when the feeling begins. In that moment, practice the extension that you’ve been training at. Stop yourself, focus on a time when you did feel the way you should be feeling, and let that feeling bleed over into the current situation. Again, this is something that takes time and effort. It is not a one time or one day event.

This isn’t easy, but it can help overtime. Of course, other things can help as well. Consistent spiritual practices, a relationship with God, and close friends who are willing to point out areas in which you need to work are all huge benefits when dealing with these kinds of overwhelming emotions. That being said, don’t give up! There is hope.

Writing for Children (and how to do an at least halfway-decent job at it)

Today I’m talking about the writing project I’ve been working on most recently. I’ve been busy—traveling to visit family and attending to some projects with tight deadlines—so, sadly, I still haven’t made any headway on either of the stories I mentioned in my last post. What I’ve been doing lately is of a fairly different nature. Last week I wrote a series of short skits (that I will also direct and act in) for my church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School.

I know. It’s hardly lofty or literary writing. It’s not a deeply involved sci-fi story, and it’s not even written in the same medium as a novel. (I’d like to talk more about the differences between drama and prose, but that may be a post for another day.) I’ll be honest: as you might have guessed from my descriptions, these skits are geared toward children, and they’re designed specifically for teaching moral and spiritual lessons, in a way that some might understandably consider didactic. I wanted to write a post on this project, because it’s my most current creative writing experience. But I admit I had some trouble with the question of “how can simple skits like these relate to the writing of more ‘serious’ fiction?”

Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children's books that are still well-loved by many adults.
Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children’s books that are still well-loved by many adults.

But, according to a long-standing principle of writing fiction, a book written only for children is a bad book. A good children’s book (or skit, etc.) will be enjoyable to children but also appeal to adults, because the author hasn’t watered down the quality just because it’s for kids. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis espoused this belief on children’s writing (or one like it) in An Experiment in Criticism, and our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me of it when I asked him if he had any ideas for my post. So now I’m trying to see whether or not my skits can be counted as “good” children’s fiction by appealing to people of all ages.

As I’ve already admitted, these skits I’ve written are not literary or extremely profound. Yes, they are mostly episodic in nature, and yes, they do each feature a “Brady Bunch” sort of ending in which characters verbally recognize a moral, apologize to each other, and resolve their conflicts nicely and neatly by the end. That’s kind of dictated by the nature of doing only a ten-or-fifteen-minute skit for instructional purposes. In fact, I might say that the quick, clean-cut moral resolutions are more due to the time constraints than to the age of the audience. In any case, due to the nature of the beast, these skits inherently have some qualities that definitely seem non-literary and would be seen as bad writing if they appeared in serious fiction.

Nonetheless, that’s not all they have. When I write skits like these, I do make an effort to write for adults as well, because 1) I know that the leaders helping with VBS will also be watching them, and 2) I’m an adult and I like to feel clever to myself with my writing. So, in accordance with the above principle about good and bad children’s writing, here are some qualities in my skits that I hope will appeal to both children and adults:

  • Humor. When you’re writing for children, you’ve got to make it fun. But shouldn’t writing for adults be enjoyable too? I try to fill each skit with jokes that, while still not incredibly clever or original, can be appreciated by both children and adults (as long as the adults like corny puns, which I happen to personally). In fact, sometimes the humor is more for adults than for kids, because the youngest class of children (four-year-olds) doesn’t understand the wordplay. Nonetheless, I still include one goofy, comic relief character who often tells puns. But the humor doesn’t exist in isolation; more serious characters react to the puns but still show off their own eccentricities as well. For example:

Megan: As camp guides, you and I will be responsible for watching over the activities and making sure all of our campers have the most awesome time they can!

Jared: Wow! That sounds pretty intense! [Smiles and points as if he’s just made a hilarious joke.]

Megan: [Confused.] Yes, um…very intense…

Jared: Get it? Intense? Like, “in tents”? [Slaps knee and laughs loudly and obnoxiously.]

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]


Megan: A movie, huh? That does sound kind of interesting. What’s it about?
Jared: It’s about a park, not so different from this one, except it’s full of huge, tall giraffes. And then the giraffes escape and go wild and try to eat everyone in the park!

Megan: Oh, that’s silly. Giraffes don’t eat people. They just eat plants!

Jared: Well, in this movie, the giraffes are ferocious hunters with huge fangs, and it’s awesome!

Megan: That still sounds silly. What’s the name of this movie, anyway?

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

Megan: [Sarcastic.] Oh, wow. What an original idea.

Jared: The first movie has a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe falling in love. And there’s a really cute baby giraffe.

Megan: A BABY GIRAFFE? OH MY GOODNESS! I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS! [Rushes over and sits down with them.] I can’t wait to see that baby giraffe! I bet it’s gonna be sooooooo cute!


  • Morals. Again, the moral messages here can’t be too complex or obscured as they might be in more serious fiction, and that’s just the nature of this type of writing. Nonetheless, the moral principles conveyed apply not just to children but to people of all ages. Furthermore, I tried to bring them away from just a quaint platitude in a Bible verse into the realm of real-life application. For example, one skit is about the dangers of hurtful words. In addition to just quoting Bible sayings about words, I also want to show, in a realistic way through the characters, that hurtful words don’t solve anything, and that encouraging and affirming others is important. Do kids need to learn that? Sure. But so do a lot of adults these days.

Sam: So, you and Jared got into an argument, and you both said some mean things to each other. Is that right?

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

Sam: And did saying mean things to him make you feel better?

Megan: Yes! Well, no. I mean, a little bit at first, maybe. But now I just feel awful about the whole thing!


Sam: Even though you can do a lot of bad things with your tongue and with your words, you can do a lot of good with them too!

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

Sam: Well, how about this? Megan, I think you’re a great part of our team! I like that you’re always hard-working and focused on the important things!

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

Sam: Jared, I think you’re a lot of fun to be around! You bring a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to our team. Plus, I like your jokes!

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

Sam: See how much better it feels when you use your words to say nice things instead of mean ones? When you encourage and strengthen each other instead of trying to hurt?


  • Creativity. What I love about writing these skits is that they allow me to be creative and have fun onstage, and this sort of fun (costumes, visual spectacle, etc.) appeals to children and to young-at-heart adults. Here’s a quick run-down of the most creative element I included this year.
  • When performing these skits, I work with high-school or middle-school-aged volunteers. Thus (if I write myself in at all), I usually make myself the older leader of some group, and have their characters be my underlings. For example, when we did a medieval theme a few years ago, I was the king, and the other actors were my knights and ladies. Last year, they were secret agents and I was the commander of their top-secret organization. This year’s theme is some blend of camping, mountain climbing, and an African safari, so I made myself the camp director and made them guides or counselors under me.
  • If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it's got to work for me too. Right?
    If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it’s got to work for me too. Right?

    But, in my opinion, camp guides aren’t quite as exciting as knights or secret agents. So I asked myself, “what can I do to make this more exciting and fun?” And the theme-appropriate answer was to make one of the other actors into not a camp guide, but a lion. Yes, a friendly, cartoonish, anthropomorphic pet lion, with a limited vocabulary about the size of Scooby-Doo’s, who the camp staff has taken under their wing. But a lion nonetheless. Because, adult or child, who wouldn’t rather see a lion onstage than another boring old human?

  • Having a lion as a main character is another source of comic relief to the skits, but also a chance to do a lot of visually fun things, like tackle other characters or chase them around the stage. And I think it adds a nice touch to the skits overall. I anticipate that the kids will love seeing the lion (the youngest ones will likely be ecstatic), and the adults will have fun with it as well.

So that’s what I’ve done to try to make my children’s writing slightly less childish and make it fun for adults as well. Did I do a good job or do I still need some work? Have you ever written for children? What approaches do you use to make it appealing for everyone?

Authenticity, Morality, and Personal Growth

So, forewarning, this post is going to have relatively little to do directly with writing. I do think that the topics I want to pursue can and should have a significant impact not only on the way we write, but on what we write and why we write. However, this post is intended to directly benefit you as an individual, not your write specifically.

There is a portion of the Postmodern movement (and this term covers a broad and vaguely defined group of ideas, philosophies, movements, and cultural changes) that puts a very heavy emphasis on authenticity. Some version of the phrase, ‘be yourself’ has become common. Of course, as always happens, there has also been a strong conservative counter-movement that emphasizes duties, responsibilities, etc and argues that the ‘be yourself’ movement is essentially an excuse for selfishness. Of course, the be yourselfers respond to this counter-movement as though it were a load of hypocritical hogwash, and generally very few people actually change their minds in any substantive way. I have, for some time, been convinced that there is value in the focus on authenticity exemplified in the ‘be yourself’ movement. However, both sides of this argument come at the problem with fundamentally flawed presuppositions.

The often unstated, though it is becoming more explicit, addendum to ‘be yourself’ is ‘you’re good enough.’ The idea presented is that I should be my authentic self, whoever that is, and should be satisfied with who I am, rather than being embarrassed or ashamed of who I am. This can be evidenced in the growing number of ‘______ Pride’ campaigns. Regardless of who I am: jock, ugly, dork, beauty queen, nerd, sadomasichist, tranny, rich, homeless, gay, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, etc, I should be proud of that rather than feeling judged, unworthy, or incapable. The idea is that whatever I am, I am good enough as I am. However, this is patently false. What if the authentic me is, for example, a pedophile and a cannibal? Should we have told Jeffrey Dahmer that he was good enough as he was and really didn’t need to change? Of course not.

That being said, the opposite is equally untrue. Jeffrey Dahmer shouldn’t have pretended that he wasn’t a pedophile and a cannibal. And the simple fact is that the be yourselfers are often exactly right in their response to the counter-movement: it is fundamentally hypocritical hogwash. If I am a nerd, jock, dork, beauty queen, rich, homeless, etc then pretending that I’m not isn’t actually going to change anything. All it will do is isolate me even further from the community that I desperately need. Further, if I do face judgment, lack of acceptance and love, etc then I am even more likely to keep pretending in the hopes that something that fundamentally cannot make a difference somehow will make a difference. I will pretend to be ‘normal’ (whatever the hell that means) as I continue to become more isolated, miserable, and convinced of my own inadequacies.

Do you see the problem with each of these? The first response justifies inadequacies while the second sublimates and ignores them. Neither response actually deals with the inadequacies to make them adequate. Now, the purpose of this post is not to identify specific inadequacies that people should deal with, and so if you see something on the list above and say ‘that’s not a problem, that really is a good thing’ then my response is: YOUR MISSING THE POINT! The simple fact is that we are all inadequate. None of us is perfect, none of us is ‘good enough’ as we are. We all have weaknesses, flaws, etc. This is a simple fact of human nature. From a Christian point of view, this is a fact of human nature because of the fall. Regardless of whether you believe in a historical Adam, the fall was when sin entered the human soul.* This fall deformed the image of God that was present in man.

Imagine a man born with no arms or legs. Now imagine seriously telling him that he’s exactly the same as everyone else… he would laugh in your face. I know this because I once unwisely tried to convince a friend of mine who’d been born crippled that he was exactly the same as everyone else and he did laugh in my face. This is a claim that is obviously untrue, and the crippled man knows that. My friend was crippled, he wasn’t an idiot. He knew he had the same value as everyone else, but he also knew that he didn’t have the same capabilities as everyone else (he was confined to a wheel chair for one). Now consider: the entire human race has been born crippled. We are not what we should be. Even if you don’t subscribe to religion, it is still obviously true that people, all people, are less than perfect… generally far less.

Now, from the Christian perspective restoration of our vertical relationship (with God) requires salvation. As deformed human beings we 1) have a deformed nature that is inclined to sin, and 2) commit individual sins on a daily basis and thus we must 1) have a new nature and 2) have the debt for our sins paid. This was a part of the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He died for three clear reasons: 1) the goal: to glorify God, 2) the first means: to pay the debt for our sins, and 3) the second means: to give us a new nature.

Some Christians will also argue that the restoration of our horizontal relationships (with other humans, with culture, with creation) also requires salvation. There is some truth to this. If human natures are fundamentally deformed, and actually being a better person (i.e. more like God) requires the restoration of that deformed nature, then salvation is required. However, this argument can be taken to mean that being more like God is equivalent with being kinder, more compassionate, braver, etc. This, I am not convinced of. Augustine pointed out the difference between having virtues (i.e. courage, wisdom, compassion, temperance, etc) and being good (i.e. being like God) – the latter will necessarily include the former, but the former won’t necessarily include the latter. If we define being good as being like God, then being good and being virtuous aren’t necessarily the same, precisely because I can be virtuous for my own purposes (for instance, being nice to others makes me feel better about myself) that have nothing to do with glorifying or resembling God. Augustine called these ‘vicious virtues’ or ‘splendid vices.’ I happen to agree with him. Further, it should be remembered that while Christians might have a new nature, they don’t necessarily follow that nature, which means that a Christian who is able to be like God, but fails to actually be like God might be less virtuous than a pagan. You must be a Christian to renew a right relationship with God. However, you don’t need to be a Christian to be less of a rat-bastard to your neighbors. I speak from experience, because for a long time both before and after I chose to follow Christ, I was a rat-bastard to my friends and neighbors, so please don’t think that I’m simply being insulting.

So, what does this mean for you? 1) Get to know Yourself: Stop trying to hide who you are. Stop pretending to have it all together. You know you don’t, I know you don’t. Take a good, hard look at yourself and figure out who you are – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the weird. The only way to figure out what needs to change is to look at what’s there. 2) Get over yourself: I know of an addiction recovery program that speaks consistently of ‘hurts, habits, and hang-ups.’ Personally, I am not a fan of this language. I think that it is much more accurate to speak of our deformaties and deficiancies. I am deformed by my intrinsic nature (for instance, I may have a genetic predisposition for alcoholism… that is not okay). I am deformed by my enviroment (let’s face it, the world can be a sucky place sometimes and we’ve all been screwed before). And I am deformed by my own bad choices (… remember the last time you got wasted? Looked at porn? Were rude to a neighbor/friend/co-worker? …CHOICE!). Accept that you make your own decisions and that some of them (let’s be honest, probably a lot of them) are bad. Stop minimizing your flaws and justifying your wrongs. 3) Accept Yourself: The victim mindset is a killer. It’s easy for us to use the excuse: “I’m just a loser. I’ll never be worth anything. I can’t change.” That’s not true. It takes courage, endurance, hard work, and a willingness to sacrifice, but if you want to be more virtuous, you can. That doesn’t mean that you’ll change completely and be perfect, but it does mean that you’ll change. You might be a bad person, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a better person. Give yourself some forgiveness and some love, but also take the responsibility to acknowledge when you do something wrong and ask for forgiveness – that’s what salvation is in the Christian mindset, by the way. It begins with the simple acknowledgement that I am not what I should be in nature or in deed, and I need God’s forgiveness for my wrongs. 4) Change Yourself: identify those areas that need to change, and decide how to work on them. It isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to be fast. Mengzi spent his entire life trying to be better: he said that at 70 he finally became a good man. It takes time, effort, and aid to become better, but it’s worth doing.

If we reject authenticity entirely, as some seem to want to do, then we lose any possibility for personal or moral growth. However, if we simply ‘be ourselves’ because we are inherently ‘good enough’ then we also lose any possibility for personal or moral growth. This is the problem that the ‘be yourself’ movement and its counter-movement seem to have missed. The goal isn’t to pretend to be a better person, nor is it to justify your own flaws and convince others that they are really ‘a good thing.’ The goal also isn’t to feel better about yourself. The goal is to actually be a better person. Now, it is worth saying that if you actually are a better person then you won’t have to pretend and you will feel better about yourself, so those are both nice little benefits. However, focus on the goal.

*Iraneaus argued that before the fall humans were innocent because they had no concept of good and evil, but simply acted on instinct… this is a conception of the fall that certainly fits better with modern evolutionary theory, though I don’t subscribe to it myself.

On Gender Relations Post 8: Disagreement (Alayna)

Alright, it’s time for another post from Alayna, and I have to say that I think this one is pretty great! She definitely took a step up from my post on disagreements last week. I think she’s got some great points here:

Once Tobias was telling me about a friend of his who told him that he couldn’t remember he and his new wife ever disagreeing. I wasn’t jealous at all. In fact, I cringed and told him I was a little worried about how their first fight (cuz they’ll inevitably have one) would go, and remarked that I was glad we had gotten our first couple thousand out of the way before we tie the knot (you’d think I was exaggerating, but I’m not…very much). As Tobias pointed out last week, the way we disagree matters. There are actually more important things than arriving at an agreement as speedily as possible. Here are some ways that have helped me keep perspective when I’m in the middle of an argument with my fiancé.

1: Keep the focus on solving the issue rather than on the issue itself. I like to have a mental picture of me and Tobias at a crossroad trying to figure out which way to go, rather than me screaming at him across a median trying to convince him to join me on my side of the highway. This encourages a team approach rather than me vs him. I’ve found that it can be helpful if things are rapidly escalating emotionally, to take a step back and remind Tobias that we’re going to figure this out. This gives me a chance to gain perspective and it might help him occasionally, too. Do everything possible to ensure that you and your significant other are prioritizing the relationship and each other above the current disagreement.

2: Keep small issues small. There will be enough big issues people can fight over, that we don’t need to escalate small ones into bigger issues. I’d like to say I am really good at this, but many times I’ll find myself in the middle of an argument with Tobias and I’ll realize that I’ve completely lost track of the severity (or lack thereof) of the issue we’ve been fighting about. What I have found to be helpful is pausing the argument to remind both of us that it’s not a big issue. Make sure to say this in a way that doesn’t minimize the other person’s opinion.

3: Compromise. Contrary to what some people think, compromising is not a sign of weakness. It is not a way of saying that someone has lost faith in their opinion, so they’re willing to meet halfway. I have a friend who told me she was too worried to even discuss compromising with her fiancé because she was worried he would see the middle ground as her new opinion and let her continually compromise until she had reached his side. That relationship didn’t make it to the altar. Make sure you’re with someone who values you over the disagreement and compromising shouldn’t be an issue. The goal of compromising isn’t necessarily to meet halfway. Divide opinions into big preferences and small preferences. And then when compromising, do as much as possible to have each person get as much of their big preferences as possible and let the others fall where they will.

4: Don’t be afraid to not always compromise. Not everything is equally important to both people (note big and small preferences from above). I remember once about a month into our relationship, Tobias and I had a disagreement about what kind of entertainment was acceptable. I felt very strongly that a certain type wasn’t, and Tobias disagreed. For me, this was a big deal and it was a smaller deal to him, so I requested that we not compromise on this issue. He agreed. A couple months later, he told me that he had since changed his mind on the issue and was now mostly agreeing with me, but for a couple months he was respecting that something was a bigger deal to me than it was to him, and was willing to make the necessary adjustment. We’ve since had another disagreement where it was a bigger deal to him than it was to me, so I gave it to him. The key here again is to do everything possible to ensure that people’s ‘big deals’ get met. I will add that it is easier to agree to completely give up a small deal to ensure that someone else gets their big deal if people have already made compromising a habit and are not prone to manipulate others. Something can’t magically be a ‘big deal’ just because you’re tired of fighting or you think the other person won last time.

5: Find a way to deal with issues where you can’t compromise because you have to either choose one option or another. We use a 1-10 scale that allows us to rate how important something is to us. We then go with whoever has the higher number. Yes, this does take honesty and respect and love for each other. If Tobias tells me something is a 6 to him, and I know it is only a 4 to me, I could say it’s a 7 so I win. But since I love him and want him to be happy, I don’t. He does the same to me. We’ve only had to use this twice that I can remember and we’ve both come out on top once. This does only work if you have a trusting and mutually loving relationship, but then if you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be in it anyway. This has also been extremely insightful for us because we’ve gotten to see how issues that one of us didn’t think was that important, was much more important to the other. Through these discussions, Tobias and I have both learned a couple things that are important to the other and have done what we can to ensure that these needs are being met. It’s helped with quite a few disagreements since. If you and your significant other have a different way to deal with these issues, that’s great, but it really does help to have something in place before a disagreement occurs. The first time we did this, my number was higher and I actually felt bad about that cuz I felt like I was making him lose. Tobias had to remind me that we had agreed previously to use that system and we weren’t going to back out then.

6: Keep the end game in mind. On one of my favorite shows (and I’m far too embarrassed to state which one it actually is), I’ve seen the same couple break up and reconnect over and over again. In this last episode, they had an issue that they might break up over and, while I like them as a couple, it didn’t faze me at all cuz I’m pretty sure that when the final episode of that show eventually airs, they’ll be together. This works the same for disagreements. And I’m not actually referring to remembering that the relationship is more important than the issue (although that is true and it does help). For me and Tobias, we take a more complementarian approach to our relationship (which you may recall from the original presuppositions post we did a few weeks back). This means that when it comes to bigger life decisions, Tobias does have the final say. Before you get offended, keep in mind that he has yet to abuse this and I have yet to feel like I can’t state my opinion or have a wish be granted because of this. This actually makes it easier for us, because Tobias is more likely to listen and consider what I have to say if he knows that I’m not going to take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to it. He can focus more on what I’m saying and less on defending his position, because he knows that if he still thinks his way is best, we’ll go that way, and then he has all the time in the world to explain why he feels that is important. This recently came up when we were arguing over apartment complexes. I’m very thrifty and was attracted to the cheaper prices that downtown living offered. Tobias was a little more worried about safety and wanted to stick with apartment complexes that were a little more expensive that were in a safer area of town. I agreed, but didn’t fully give up on the downtown life idea. When we got to the more expensive complex (which is definitely how I was referring to it in my mind), he pointed out that the 2-bedroom apartments weren’t that much more expensive than the 1-bedroom apartment and it might be the better buy. I felt like he was quickly and carelessly adding a lot of “not much more expensive” to the point that it was adding up fast, which got me focused on the downtown apartments again. I got so wrapped up in getting my own way that I completely lost sight of supporting Tobias, and he in turn got so wrapped up in trying to convince me that safety was important, that it felt like he wasn’t actually listening to my financial concerns. While driving down the highway, it suddenly hit me how off-track I was and I requested that he pull off into a parking lot cuz I had something important to tell him. He did, and I told him that I would go with the apartment complex that he wanted, I just wanted him to consider a couple of my issues before he fell in love with a certain complex. That calmed both of us down to the point that he was able to admit that he might not have been prioritizing finances as high as he should. He agreed to stick with the one-bedroom apartment and to do his best to cut costs where possible. We accomplished more in the next 60 seconds of conversation than we had in the previous hour.

My Conclusion:

Disagreements will always happen and will always be hard. But they can also be good. Prioritize people over issues, don’t blow small issues into bigger issues, and find a way to compromise and deal with situations where you can’t. It won’t look the same for each couple, but it can help all of them. Then, instead of dreading your first disagreement, you can learn and actually thrive through disagreements.